Hall of Famer

From his first World Series in 1941, when he interviewed Yankee legend Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, to the end of his career almost 60 years later, Trent Frayne built his reputation on style, class, and great writing—qualities frequently lacking in today's sports pages

Kurt Eby
Spring, 2002 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

The picture was taken with a box Brownie on the infield at Yankee Stadium just before the first game of the 1941 World Series. That's Joe DiMaggio in his home whites, staring inward as DiMaggio so often did. The young man beside him is Billy Frayne, 23, all the way from Winnipeg, and he's in uniform too-the sports scribe's requisite suit and fedora. He'd purchased that suit, made to measure, at Tip Top Tailors for $27.50. That was more than Billy made in a week writing sports for the Tribune, but he wasn't about to look out of place at his first Fall Classic, even if it was on his own dime. No, if he was going to rub padded shoulders with the likes of Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, John Larnder, and even old Grantland Rice, he had to fit in, right down to the pack of Camels in his pocket. These guys, after all, were his heroes whose style, in print and in person, he tried to imitate. They were the elite of the sporting press, the gatekeepers of a powerful North American sports mythology. Without them, DiMaggio was just a shy fisherman's son who happened to be the best baseball player of his time. But in their hands, he was poetry in pinstripes. "If you saw him play, you'll never forget him," wrote Jimmy Cannon. "No one ran with such unhurried grace. His gifts as an athlete were marvelous because they were so subdued. Here was an outfielder who followed the flight of the ball with a deft serenity as though his progress had been plotted by a choreographer concerned only with the defeat of awkwardness." There were no TV cameras in the Bronx that day to bring such images down to earth, just the men at the typewriters weaving their legends.

Trent Frayne-Billy was a nickname he left behind in Winnipeg in 1942-is 83 now. Over the years he has watched as a new breed of writer and a different set of values have taken over the craft. The mean pages of the sports press rarely create legends anymore; they're mostly filled instead with the greed of the business pages, the criminality of cops-and-courts coverage, and the marketing mania of the real estate sections. Though they don't shrink from the dark side of sports (even DiMaggio's lofty legend fell victim to that), too often it's at the expense of what David Halberstam called "some measure of literary grace." More than anything else, Frayne and his contemporaries-Scott Young, Ted Reeve, Jim Coleman-were a pleasure to read. Little of their wit, their playfulness, their sheer irreverence, has survived. The late Dick Beddoes, whose Globe and Mail column embodied all these qualities, probably put it best: "Sport is all hoke and hype, but I find it outrageous and wonderful."

"Don Cherry is widely known as Grapes (if his last name were Grapes, he'd likely be known as Cherry)." Trent Frayne has been tossing off lines like that for 60 years. His ironic, easygoing style never shows sweat. He deals in finesse, not fist-shaking. It's a style he learned in Winnipeg and Toronto during the '40s, when the sports department was the creative writing lab of the newspaper. He brought it to a high shine in the '50s among the legendary wordsmiths at Maclean's. Pierre Berton, then the magazine's managing editor, found Frayne's prose "refreshingly free of the curious jargon that haunts some sports pages." Indeed, it haunts them still.

Frayne's first full-time sports-writing job in Toronto was on the old Telegram, where he covered the Argonauts of the CFL, then called the Big Four, and the baseball Maple Leafs, who played in the International League, which was one step down from the majors. In the fall of '49, the Leafs were about to play a series that was crucial to their playoff chances. "To prevent people from collapsing on psychiatrists' couches," Frayne wrote, "the Leafs merely need to win today behind [starter] Nick Strincevich and tomorrow behind everybody but Burrhead the batboy." As for the CFL, Frayne found things then were as they had always been and would always be. "Across the country," he observed, "sylvan rivulets large enough for trout are coursing down the cheeks of football coaches as they describe their starting lineups as the greatest in the history of Canada and their reserves as little, one-armed boys with the brains and ability of a gnu. A very young gnu."

At the Tely, Frayne was joined in the gnu journalism by Jim Coleman and Ted Reeve, entertainers of the first order. "The man who takes the post of coaching the Black Hawks," wrote Coleman of the 1950 Chicago team, "can be compared only to the man who insists upon riding over the big drop at Niagara Falls on a chaise lounge." Reeve, a former football and lacrosse star who liked to call himself the Moaner, was a literary journalist long before the term was coined. Here he is in 1956 on the 25th anniversary of Maple Leaf Gardens: "[T]he Gardens, with its ever pressing program of events, becomes as much a part of a Toronto sports chronicler's life and daily journal as Mr. Crusoe's stockade was to the sturdy sailor with the steady habits. Or Mons. Cristo's air-conditioned tunnel, Master Thoreau's pond-side retreat at Walden or Tim Linkinwater's set of ledgers in the counting-house of Cheeryble Bros." Defoe, Dumas, Thoreau, and Dickens all in one swoop. The Moaner should have had a library, not a hockey arena, named after him.

Frayne and company, who included the likes of Scott Young at the Globe and Milt Dunnell at the Star-you'll find all three, along with Coleman, in the writers section of the Hockey Hall of Fame-wrote on the assumption that their words were the first anyone knew of what went on in the previous day's games, and readers looked beneath their bylines for the kind of word pictures that would soon be lost to TV. If a contest wasn't exciting enough, they had the chops to make it so. "[S]tyle with the language enabled them to reflect much more than the sting of the sweat and the flight of the ball," the late Ron Poulton, no mean stylist himself, once wrote. They could fit a feature article into 750 words and they loved to write, a fact perhaps best illustrated by Frayne's golfing partner, Young, who has penned 45 books. Dunnell-who could never call anything by its real name (the Stanley Cup, for example, was "Lord Stanley's battered old beaker")-later wrote six columns, hosted 10 radio sportscasts, and appeared on two TV shows every week. Frayne, on the other hand, was about to become less prolific but more polished.

Maclean's in the '50s was a legendary shop, both for the man who ran it and the writers who filled its glossy pages. It was a biweekly periodical, which meant Frayne, as a regular contributor, had more time and space in which to try to meet the standards of its storied editor, Ralph Allen. A former sportswriter and war correspondent (it was Allen's departure from the Tribune in 1938, in fact, that made room for Frayne), Allen was so demanding of his writers and editors-who included Berton, Barbara Moon, Bruce Hutchison, Peter C. Newman, Peter Gzowski, and Frayne's wife, June Callwood-that he once declared of a freelance piece: "This is so bad, it'll have to be rewritten before it's rejected." Though the authenticity of the story may be questioned, it is, given Allen's reputation, easy to believe. Frayne thrived under Allen, churning out some of his best work ever, particularly profiles such as "The Greatest Fighter Who Ever Lived," his moving account of the life of Sam Langford, and "That Man in the Greens," his uncompromising look at Conn Smythe, in which Smythe's famously self-revealing quote-"If you can't beat them in the alley, you can't beat them in here on the ice"-first appeared.

In 1959, Ralph Allen left Maclean's and soon turned up writing sports for the Tely. Frayne followed with a gig as a feature writer for The Toronto Star, later rejoining the sports-writing fraternity as a columnist for The Toronto Sun. It was during this time Frayne picked up his National Newspaper Award, but more important to him, he had the opportunity to pass on some of what he had learned to a younger generation. "He was an incredibly generous guy with his experience and his talent," says Ottawa Sun columnist Earl McRae, who met Frayne when they were both at the Star. Despite their age difference, McRae says that Frayne is "like a generational compatriot. He probably thinks he's still 23 years old." Allen Abel, who met Frayne when they were both covering the Jays in 1977, thinks so too. "He seemed to act like he was in dreamland. And maybe sports writers should have that attitude because that's what sports is, dreamland."

But for Frayne's generation, the dream was going sour. No longer did the writers take you out to the game; television did that now. The writers were left on the sidelines, often building themselves up as much as the athletes. "The first-person singular became popular, but I rarely tried it," Frayne says. If he had to refer to himself, he was usually "your agent." He'd learned that from Ralph Allen; readers, Allen would say, are interested in the subject, not the person writing about it. There was something classy about the continued use of self-deprecating references like "the ink-stained wretch." They signaled the guys who could still write. Allan Fotheringham (a.k.a. "this scribbler") broke in as a sportswriter at The Vancouver Sun in the same department where Beddoes ("y'r ob't servant") practised his prolific prose. "Television offers one thing," Fotheringham says, "but reading a beautiful sentence about how Gordie Howe actually played is something else."

According to Frayne, TV has had another negative effect on the trade. "[S]portswriting once inspired an inventiveness not easy to find nowadays," he once wrote. "I think the change can be traced to the money television has put into the pockets of professional athletes. It used to be that players and scribes shared a mutual economic scale and common social level. Today's athletes have climbed to such heights on the economic ladder that setting up an interview with one is like making an appointment with the prime minister."

"What do they write?" says George (the Baron) Gross, corporate sports editor at the Sun, of today's practitioners. "They go to the dressing room and they quote five or 10 players, then they write who slept with whose wife, what their salary is, who their agent is-crap like this." After the death of Casey Stengel, Frayne used his Sun column to bring back an era the Baron still treasures: "They [the writers] listened to Ol' Case hour after hour, drinking with him, laughing with him, filling their heads with stories about him, and then writing a reasonable facsimile in their papers." But that time's gone now, remaining only in the memories and the books of those who lived it-and on enough microfiche to wrap around the SkyDome a few dozen times.

To borrow a phrase from Frayne himself, he made his first appearance here on God's green footstool on September 13, 1918, in Brandon, Manitoba. And he just missed being named Dorothy. His parents-Homer, a CPR railroader, and his wife, Ella-had been expecting a girl and had the name all ready, so when the boy arrived he was given Trent Gardiner, after the surnames of his mother and his paternal grandmother. But no little boy could live with a handle like that, so Ella's best friend suggested Billy, which would remain his moniker for the next 24 years.

Billy Frayne considered his parents an odd match. In his memoir, The Tales of an Athletic Supporter, Frayne described his father as "a gregarious, charming man who loved sitting around with other railroaders in the hotel beer parlors swapping tales." His mother, who was fiercely concerned about appearances, "didn't have much humour and took almost everything literally." Somehow she just couldn't see the funny side of sending Billy out to the pubs to fetch his dad long after supper had gone cold.

As his father took to the beverage halls, Billy took to the playing fields. He surrounded himself with sports, playing them, reading about them, and eventually writing them. He was the boy standing outside the office of the Brandon Sun waiting for someone to post the half-inning scores of the World Series. Billy started by sending in the results of his own games to be printed in the Sun, and by the time he was about 15, he was covering minor hockey for the paper. To write his copy, he'd wake up at 5 a.m., lock himself in the bathroom of his parents' one-bedroom apartment so as not to disturb his folks, and compose on the can.

When it came time for college, tuition was too steep for the Fraynes, so Billy made a deal with the Sun. During the Depression years, the paper gave advertising space to Brandon College (now Brandon University) on credit and Billy brainstormed that the college could reduce its debt to the Sun by educating one of its young writers. He spent the next three years attending classes and pounding out local copy, but left college and Brandon before graduation when the Canadian Press in Winnipeg offered him a full-time job at $18 a week.

In Winnipeg, he found a roommate, Scott Young, a sportswriter at the Free Press, and a mentor, Ralph Allen, a columnist for the Tribune. His apprenticeship-and his future-could not have been in better hands. After a four-year stint at CP and the Trib, during which he took time out to make Joe DiMaggio's acquaintance, Billy decided to follow Scott and Ralph, who had gone to Toronto. He went to the Globe, where he was given a general reporting job for $45 a week and a new byline-Trent Frayne was much more suitable for the country's national newspaper.

But working at the Globe brought him more than bylines. Shortly after he arrived, a young woman-"stunningly beautiful" to borrow Pierre Berton's words-began spinning heads in the newsroom. Her name was June Callwood and she was attracted to just one guy there. She'd seen Frayne's picture in the Globe while she was still working for The Expositor in Brantford, Ontario and sought him out when she got to Toronto. "I liked that he was a good writer and a good-looking man," Callwood says. "He still is." They were married in 1944.

Always the realist to Callwood's idealist, Frayne likes to offer another reason for his attraction: since Callwood was a teetotaler, he could increase his wartime beer ration by drinking hers too. But Frayne can't hide behind that joke for long. "They were very much in love, a handsome couple who called each other 'Dreamy,'" Berton observed when they moved to Maclean's six years later. "We thought we were the luckiest people in the world," Callwood says of those freelance years. "We all had young children and not very much money. We always took two typewriters on vacation." Between them, Berton has written, they probably produced more pieces for Maclean's than anybody else.

They've both kept at it, writing, at latest count, a total of 44 books. They also had four kids whom they raised in the Etobicoke home they bought 49 years ago and still live in. Callwood went on to become, well, June Callwood (it takes Canadian Who's Who more than a column of tiny type to list her accomplishments, affiliations, awards, and honorary degrees). As she moved deeper into activism, Frayne stuck with his sports, something, he says "she wasn't remotely interested in." But they were always there for each other. She for him from 1962 to 1968 when he worked as a reluctant PR man for the Ontario Jockey Club and drank too much (he got busted for driving under the influence, she bailed him out, and he never drank again). He for her in '68 when the cops hauled her off to jail for joining a hippie protest in Yorkville, and in 1991 when some board members at Nellie's, a women's shelter she helped found, tried to label her, of all things, a racist. But never was this mutual support more needed than in 1982.

While returning to Queen's University, Casey Frayne, 20, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Frayne's friends say he has never recovered from the death of his youngest child and it's easy to see why. Sitting in his home office, he's as restless as a 10 year old until the talk turns to Casey and how much they miss him. He lowers his voice and shrinks down in his chair, taking a moment to choose his words. "I think she still dreams of him every night," he finally says. "But you have to go on with your everyday life."

They did go on, returning together to where they'd met, The Globe and Mail, from 1983 to 1989. After that Frayne went home still again, this time for an eight-year stint writing an elegant monthly column for Maclean's. He was 78 when he left and he'd seen enough Grey Cups, Olympic Games, World Series, Wimbledons, and Kentucky Derbies. "It is an axiom of sports that the legs go first," he wrote in his memoir. "For sportswriters, it's the enthusiasm." He spends a lot of time at home these days, where he watches sports on TV, preferring the comforts of his couch to the confines of the press box. It's as his old friend, Ralph Allen, mentioned to him at Maple Leaf Gardens a long time ago: "I don't mind writing the bloody column; it's the goddam games I can't stand."

Allen died in 1966, Ted Reeve in '83, and Jim Coleman last year. And a splendid era in Canadian sports writing died with them. Trent Frayne's byline, a jewel of that era, seldom appears anymore. But, as he once wrote of Joe DiMaggio, he carries on-"as always, dignity intact."

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